04/06/2007 11:00PM

Ermine finally gets Grade 1 victory

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Ermine accomplished a major objective her connections set for her this year on Saturday, when she became a Grade 1 winner in the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. Ermine overtook pacesetter Take D' Tour inside the final furlong for a 1 1/4-length win, while Round Pond, the highweight and 6-5 favorite, finished third, 4 1/4 lengths behind Take D' Tour.

The Apple Blossom is Oaklawn's richest offering for fillies and mares, and part of the annual Racing Festival of the South, when at least one stakes a day is run here through the close of the meet next Saturday.

Ermine ($8) broke in at the start and settled just behind the first flight in the 1 1/16-mile race. Take D' Tour led through an opening quarter in 23.22 seconds, with River Savage and Round Pond in close pursuit. Ermine continued to track the leaders through a half-mile in 47.18 seconds, then moved to the outside of rivals on the final turn and advanced. She covered the distance over a fast track in 1:44.

Eddie Castro rode Ermine for owners Art and Stephanie Preston and trainer Ronny Werner.

Earlier in the week, Werner said the goal for Ermine this year was a Grade 1 win. She had finished second in consecutive Grade 1 races in Southern California heading into in the Apple Blossom, and in her only other Grade 1 appearance was second in last year's Kentucky Oaks. She came into the Apple Blossom off a second-place finish to Balance in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita on March 10.

Ermine earned $300,000 for her win in the Apple Blossom, which was her fifth victory from 13 career starts. She has now earned $851,082. Ermine is a 4-year-old daughter of Exchange Rate.

Ermine won her maiden at Oaklawn last year, and one start later captured the $75,000 Honeybee in Hot Springs.

Werner said several days ago that a long-term goal for Ermine would be the Breeders' Cup Distaff, and that she might be freshened following the Apple Blossom.